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It was the spring of 1990, Alison Roome has said, when she was told that she might have been a member of a satanic cult and participated in gory rituals. The occasion was her first meeting with Judith Peterson.
A tall, striking, redheaded woman with a doctorate in clinical psychology, Peterson was considered an expert in the field of multiple personality disorder and retrieving repressed memories of childhood abuse. Roome and the other patients at Spring Shadows Glen psychiatric hospital in northwest Houston knew a situation was serious when Peterson was called into their unit.
The way Roome remembers that day in 1990, Peterson hypnotized her and then shepherded her through an abreactive session, an accepted form of therapy in which a patient is encouraged to bring forth painful, repressed feelings of childhood trauma or abuse.
Roome, a former student of social work at the University of Houston, had been sexually abused as a child, and she had come to Spring Shadows Glen for treatment of depression and bulimia. She had already been diagnosed as having multiple personalities, but she didn't believe it.
She didn't believe it, either, when after that abreactive session Peterson told Roome of her past affiliation with a satanic cult whose membership spanned generations and killed babies -- the memory of which Roome had somehow buried too deeply to recall.
"She only met me for five minutes and she said I was in a satanic cult," Roome later told Amy Smith, another patient at the unit who had befriended Roome.
So Smith was amazed when she saw Roome several months later in the psychiatric intensive care unit at Spring Shadows. Not only had Roome come to believe that she harbored multiple personalities -- and was switching in and out of them -- she also had developed the unshakable belief that she had once been in a cult whose rituals included the eating of babies.
Roome looked worn and emaciated, Smith thought, a shadow of the well-put-together and "incredibly smart" young woman Smith had first met in 1989 in the eating disorders unit at Spring Shadows.
"It was like her spirit had been broken," Smith recalls.
Today, Alison Roome has a lawsuit pending against Peterson, Spring Shadows Glen and other therapists, alleging gross negligence, conspiracy and fraud in their diagnosis. And Roome -- whose treatment cost her insurance carrier $600,000 -- isn't the only former patient of Spring Shadows Glen or Dr. Judith Peterson who believes her spirit was broken in therapy and is taking her case to court.
Peterson -- but not Spring Shadows Glen -- is also a defendant in a suit filed by the family of Kathryn Schwiderski that is scheduled to be tried this fall. Schwiderski and her three minor children were diagnosed by Peterson as having multiple personality disorder (MPD) and would eventually re-call having been members of a baby-killing satanic cult.
Mary Shanley, whose treatment for MPD and child abuse supposedly committed by one of her multiple personalities cost her insurance companies $2 million, filed a $50 million suit against Peterson, Spring Shadows and 22 other hospitals and therapists last year.
In another pending suit, Lynn Carl is asking $18 million in damages from Peterson, Spring Shadows Glen and others. Carl claims she became convinced while undergoing therapy with Peterson that she was a Satan worshiper and had been a victim of abusive satanic rituals. She says her children were later admitted to Spring Shadows and also diagnosed by Peterson and other therapists as suffering from MPD and satanic ritual abuse.
The family of Lucy Abney recently settled, for an undisclosed sum, a lawsuit they had filed in 1993 against Peterson and Spring Shadows Glen, claiming the defendants were negligent for making an inaccurate diagnosis of Abney and her two daughters as having MPD and belonging to a satanic cult. Their suit alleged the family was hospitalized to bilk $1 million in insurance payments.
Running through all of the plaintiffs' allegations is a common story -- one of already-fragile lives broken and families torn apart by "memories" of satanic ritual abuse.
If any of the lawsuits get to trial, one of the most hotly debated controversies in psychology and psychiatry -- that of the validity of recovered memories -- is likely to get a thorough airing.
A trial might also help explain to those who weren't there what exactly was going on inside the dissociative disorders unit of Spring Shadows Glen during the first three years of this decade.
Amy Smith was a sophomore at Texas A&M in December 1989 when she came to "the Glen," as the patients called it, for treatment of bulimia and depression. But eventually, after her therapist suggested that her condition might be related to childhood sexual abuse, she began to recover a memory of someone pulling on her legs when she was a young girl. That soon metamorphosed into a memory of being raped by her father when she was three years old.
Smith had been one of the first patients in Spring Shadow's new dissociative disorders unit. Judith Peterson, who previously had been a consultant to the hospital, was named clinical director of the unit in 1990.